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  • Nuclear fuel cycle

    The economics of uranium supplyand demandby Ph. Darmayan*

    The uranium market is still a young one whose "laws"have yet to become entirely clear. This tends to disorientobservers and decision-makers who are anxious topredict its development. It has a number of characteristicswhich are sharply differentiated from those of otherminerals, including other energy commodities.

    First, the applications of uranium are very restricted,being limited for all practical purposes to militarytechnology and to civil nuclear power. Between 1942and 1974, the world's military requirements accountedfor over 200 000 tonnes of uranium, or nearly 50% ofcumulative world output during that period. Suchrequirements no longer play a major role, and theproduction of electricity is now for all practical purposesthe sole determinant of the economics of the uraniummarket. Only a very few other metals have such limitedapplications they include barium (used almost entirelyas baryta in the drilling of oil wells), gallium (in themanufacture of diodes and superconductors), andtitanium (in aircraft).

    The second characteristic to be noted is that there areno direct substitutes for uranium. For a completednuclear power plant uranium cannot be replaced by anyother fuel. This near impossibility of substitution -other than by slow and expensive modifications to thepower generation system could well be unique for ametal. Even barium, gallium, and titanium can be

    * Mr Darmayan is an economist with Uranium Pechiney UgineKuhlmann, and is convener of a Uranium Institute working partyon supply and demand economics He gratefully acknowledgesthe help of his Institute colleagues in the preparation of this article.

    replaced by other metals if their price becomes excessive.Most titanium parts, for example, can be manufacturedif necessary from aluminium or special steels.

    Thirdly, uranium also has unusual economiccharacteristics when compared to other energy-producingraw materials. Processing of the mineral accounts for avery large proportion - around 88% - of the cost of thefinal fuel assemblies put into nuclear reactors, comparedwith 42% and 33% respectively for coal- and oil-burningpower plants. But the absolute levels of nuclear fuelcosts are low which, despite high front-end costs (mainlyfor the enrichment plant and the costs of the powerstation itself), makes for predictability in the overalleconomics of an electricity generating station. Onepractical effect of these low fuel costs is that the uraniumneeded to supply a station during its operating life ofup to 30 years can be considered as committed, almostindependently of changes in the cost of natural uranium.

    Fourthly, in terms of transportation and storage costsuranium has advantages over all other energy sources,including in particular oil and coal (see Table 1). This easeof storage, coupled with the need felt by operators ofnuclear stations for long-term security of fuel supply,explains the large size of the currently existing stockpilesowned by the world's utilities (93 000 tonnes of U at theend of 1979).

    Finally, the nuclear industry is one with unusuallylong lead-times. For both uranium miners and electricalutilities, it can take ten or more years between a decisionto proceed with a project, and the point where a newmine or nuclear generating plant is brought into operation.

    Table 1. Annual fuel requirements of a 1000 MWe power plant [1]

    Fuel quantity

    Fuel storage

    Fuel cost(French Francs, approx.)

    Transport

    Coal-burning

    2.2 X 106

    tonnes coal-equiv

    40ha(400 X 100m)

    450 million

    22 bulk carriersof 100 000dwt oneevery 16 days

    Oil-burning

    1 5X 10s

    tonnes oil-equiv.

    25ha(50 tanks at 30 000m3)

    600 million

    1500 barges of1000 tonnes -four every day

    PWR nuclear

    150 tonnesnatural uranium

  • Nuclear fuel cycle

    Table 2. Forecasts of installed electrical capacity (GWe) for WOCA [2]

    DOE(low)

    1980

    NAC

    1980

    UraniumInst.(low)

    1980

    NUKEM DOE Uranium INFCE(high) Inst (high) (low)

    1980 1980 1980 1979

    NUEXCO

    1980

    NAC INFCEutility (high)based1980 1979

    1985

    1990

    1995

    209

    292

    388

    208

    306

    395

    227

    335

    356

    227

    345

    242

    360

    493

    227

    350

    494

    245

    373

    550

    264

    328

    264

    375

    274

    462

    770

    Because of such long lead-times the upper limit forinstalled nuclear capacity, as well as enrichment plantcapacity, is, for all practical purposes, already decideduntil the late 1980s. And, for a very similar reason,the maximum levels of uranium production capacitywhich will be available by then are also known with a highdegree of certainty.

    For all these reasons, the uranium market is stronglydependent on forecasts of nuclear electricity production,and on the market outlook for the main componentsof the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly enrichment.These linkages do not, however, entirely shield the uraniummarket from having to face uncertainties concerning thesupply and demand balance in the 1980s and beyond.The substantial reductions in power plant programmessince 1976, over-capacity in the enrichment market, andlengthening delays in bringing new nuclear facilities intooperation, plus the flexibility conferred by the ease ofuranium storage, all warrant careful and continuinganalysis of the uranium supply and demand equation.

    The Uranium Institute, which was set up in 1975, isan international industrial association whose membershipincludes representatives of both uranium producers andelectrical utilities. Over 50 major organizations from14 countries take part in its work. One of the Institute'smost important aims is to make use of the expertiseavailable within its membership to contribute to a betterunderstanding of the economics of the uranium market.This task has been approached mainly through the workof a Supply and Demand Committee, which has been inexistence since 1978. Its task is to analyse the uraniumsupply and demand outlook, and to publish reportselucidating the factors governing the market. In addition,each year, in September, the Uranium Institute organizesa symposium where the economics of the uraniummarket are considered in detail by numerous organizations-producers, consumers, consultants, and governmentagencies.

    The Institute's Supply and Demand Committee iscurrently updating its forecasts, and later this year willissue a further report. Meanwhile it is possible to foreseethe likely trends with a fair degree of clarity by drawing onsome of the features of the uranium market which havebeen detailed in papers presented at past Institutesymposia.

    Flexibilities in demand

    The Uranium Institute's September 1980 forecast ofthe build-up of nuclear capacity over the period to 1995is summarized in Table 2. According to these estimates*,which take account of all the reactors currently moperation, under construction or on firm order (as ofSeptember 1980), nuclear capacity in 1985 will be227 GWe and 335 GWe in 1990. If all the reactorsplanned (in September 1980) are added to these figures,the estimates would become 350 GWe and 494 GWe for1990 and 1995 respectively.

    These forecasts take account of the status of eachindividual reactor under construction and of the situationwith respect to the development of nuclear powerprevailing in each country. Outside the United States,the Institute forecast assumes that construction lead-timeswill not exceed six years. Only about 20 stations, all ofthem still in the early stages of construction, are believedto be in difficulty and not available for commercialoperation for a further 8 to 10 years. For the UnitedStates, a longer lead-time of ten years has been assumed;it is still too early to assess the future impact on lead-times of the recent signs of a more favourable attitude tonuclear power.

    Apart from nuclear capacity projections, the mainfactors which influence uranium demand are the tailsassays used at enrichment plants, and the possibility ofrecycling uranium and plutonium in PWR and FBRreactors after the reprocessing of spent fuel. Currentenrichment techniques allow the tails assay to vary from0.15% to 0.30%. Other methods, still at the experimentalstage, might allow this to be reduced to as little as 0.10%or even 0.05%. Table 3 gives an indication of the extentto which uranium consumption might be reduced byvarying the tails assay, with respect to a point of referencedefined by a product concentration of 3.25% U-235, atails assay of 0.20%, and no fuel recycling.

    However, the flexibilities which theoretically exist inthe demand pattern are not always available in practiceto the utilities, since enrichment companies only allowtheir customers to choose tails assays between 0.20% and

    * The corresponding estimates made by the International FuelCycle Evaluation form the subject of Mr Bennett's article onpage 8 of this bulletin

    IAEA BULLETIN, VOL. 23, No.2

  • Nuclear fuel cycle

    Table 3. Possible reduction in uranium requirements followingfrom certain changes in the fuel cycle [1]

    Process change

    tails assay cut to0.15%0.10%0.05%

    reprocessing/recycling ofuraniumuranium/plutomum

    fast breeder reactor in full use'

    U supply reduction (%)

    7313.418.6

    19.030.0

    99.0 approx

    In the case of recycling these savings are only realized several yearslater Above reductions are relative to a standard case oftails 0 25%, product stream 3 25% U 2 3 S , no recycling

    0.30%, and that provided 15 months to 4 years priornotice is given. The choice is strongly dependent on theprevailing price of natural uranium and of separative work(i.e. princ

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